A glorious course beckons

Feature Ireland attracts some 200,000 foreign golfers each year and Killeen Castle gives serious students of the game two more reasons to go.

The view down the 18th hole at Killeen Castle. The original Norman castle was built by Hugh de Lacy in 1181 and restored after a fire in 1981.
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In the searing heat of a UAE summer, even those days that the Irish like to describe as "soft" - and there are many such days - have a special appeal. For the uninitiated, "soft" could mean anything between a drizzle and a downpour. Come rain or shine, golf courses within an hour's drive of Dublin include some of the best in the world: Portmarnock, The European, Druid's Glen, the County Louth Golf Club (better known as Baltray where the Irish Open was played this year), the K Club and Luttrellstown Castle, a five-star resort that found wider fame in 1999 when David and Victoria Beckham were married there.

All in all, golf tourism contributes an estimated US$233 million (Dh820m) to the Irish economy, with nearly 200,000 golfers from North America, the UK, Europe and the Middle East visiting the country every year. There are some 400 golf courses spread throughout Ireland, including many famous links courses such as Royal County Down and Ballybunion. But the glittering new star in the Irish golfing firmament is Killeen Castle, about 35 minutes' drive from the city centre, near Dunshaughlin in County Meath. The parkland course has been chosen as the venue for the 2011 Solheim Cup, the women's version of the Ryder Cup.

The beauty of Killeen strikes you immediately as you make your way through an imposing entrance and down a winding drive past the castle towards the modern clubhouse. The original Norman castle was built by Hugh de Lacy in 1181 and became the home of the Anglo-Irish Plunkett family in the 15th century. It would be a perfect backdrop for an epic film, and it's easy to imagine young Plunkett scions on horseback galloping up what is now the 18th fairway in time for a sumptuous dinner in the Great Hall.

In 1981 Killeen Castle was seriously damaged in an arson attack but the current owners have restored it to its original splendour and it will become the centrepiece of a five-star resort in time for the 2011 clash between Europe and America. Two things make it especially attractive to golfers. The first is that the course was designed by the legendary Jack Nicklaus, who never puts his name to a signature course lightly and played a hands-on role in its construction. The second is that it is the only home outside the United States of the famous Dave Pelz Scoring Game School that specialises in the short game. The school, which offers one-, two- and three-day courses, was opened last July on 11 designated acres near the main course where USPGA standard greens, bunkers, aprons and hitting areas were designed by Pelz to simulate championship conditions.

It's not for the person who likes to stand on a range and blast drive after drive into the blue horizon. The school only teaches distance wedge shots, pitching, chipping, sand play and putting, which, of course, comprise about 60 per cent of the game. But people travel from all over the world to attend Pelz's Florida academy. The new school will be much more convenient for European and Middle Eastern enthusiasts.

Two Irish PGA professionals, Finnish-born Jussi Pitkanen, and Conor Devery from County Offaly, trained at the Pelz school at Boca Raton, Florida, and have already sharpened the games of hundreds of keen amateurs and several tour professional players. No time is wasted. They strip down your stance, your grip, your swing and the placement of the ball within minutes and very soon have you hitting cleaner shots with less effort. My putter was far too long, I was told. Three inches have been hacked off it since my visit, which has had a pleasing effect on my putting.

I visited Killeen Castle in May and, having been born and bred in Ireland, should have known better than to turn up without my waterproofs. Yet the silver lining was in fact golden. The Golden Bear himself was there for the official opening of the course, a huge treat for any keen golfer. Now 69 but still capable of getting a birdie-three on a par four of his stunning course as he demonstrated, Nicklaus was in sparkling form. After entertaining a group of golf-club members with tales of his friendship and golfing rivalry with Arnold Palmer, he gamely strode out in heavy rain to play a few holes with his son, Jack junior.

As he walked around the course he told us why he had sited a bunker here, a tee there. He explained how the state-of-the-art greens had been built to withstand everything Irish weather can throw at them and pointed out trees that had been imported to augment the lush parkland estate, giving the golf course a maturity that belies its youth. Nicklaus has visited Killeen nine times since his company started construction on the par-72 course, which covers 350 acres and can be stretched to 7,600 yards. He chatted to ground staff about pin placements and how the course could be set up for major tournaments but made less fearsome for the club golfer.

He then demonstrated the skill that won him 18 Majors by sinking a four-metre right-to-left curved putt on the 18th to whoops of delight. At that moment the sun came out from behind the clouds and all was well with the world. Another attraction at Killeen is fly fishing on the estate's seven lakes. The Irish international team coach Sean McManmon is the estate manager and available to give lessons to everyone from the novice to the experienced. There are also wonderful walks around the grounds, and when the hotel and spa are completed it will be a huge draw for golfers and non-golfers alike.

With its stunning vistas, it has something for all levels of golfer. Its wide fairways are fun for big hitters, the par threes suitably tricky and the greens are immaculate and true. It's both challenging and fair, and if a golf course can reflect the character of its designer, Killeen reflects that of a great gentleman champion. pkennedy@thenational.ae